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Parsing Pasternak: What Were the Brooklyn Museum’s Trustees Thinking?

Help Wanted: Direct one of this country’s major encyclopedic museums. No museum experience required.

If Phillips Oppenheim, the headhunting firm responsible for the Brooklyn Museum’s director’s search, had put out such a wacky solicitation, an uproar of incredulity would have ensued.

More likely, its job description (which I have not seen) for the position now awarded to museum neophyte Anne Pasternak would have included a variation on the requirements in the same search firm’s publicly posted job description for the still unannounced new director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Among the listed “personal characteristics” that Detroit’s new director must have are:

—Credibility and extensive experience in the field, and a strong support network

—Prior experience with museum operations, government, governance and best museum practices; community driven and civic minded

As everyone (including the Brooklyn Museum’s board of trustees) ought to know, heading that complex institution is no starter directorship. “Prior experience with museum operations, governance and best museum practices” shouldn’t be optional; it’s essential.

Notwithstanding her considerable strengths in commissioning acclaimed public art projects and in administering and raising funds for Creative Time (not to mention her proven skills in networking with New York’s cultural and philanthropic community), Anne Pasternak lacks what I would have expected to have been the Number One qualification for Arnold Lehman‘s successor—extensive museum experience.

Anne Pasternak, next director of the Brooklyn Museum

Anne Pasternak, named to be the next director of the Brooklyn Museum

Lehman, who directed the Baltimore Museum for almost two decades before coming to Brooklyn in 1997, had that essential prerequisite. So did his predecessors, Robert Buck and Michael Botwinick.

Pasternak, having spent the last two decades at Creative Time, a nimble, innovative public art organization, has never had a monumental, aging physical infrastructure to maintain and improve; nor a permanent collection to develop and preserve; nor substantive professional contact with world cultures throughout the ages; nor a large work force (more than 300 at Brooklyn)—ranging from guards to distinguished art scholars—to manage.

What, then, are the qualities that helped her gain the trustees’ trust? The museum’s press release extols her for being “deeply passionate about engaging broad audiences that transcend geographic, racial, and socioeconomic divisions. Anne Pasternak has continually championed artists and works relevant to the contemporary age.” (An artist-centric leader, Pasternak, 50, is married to the Mike Starn of “Big Bambú” fame.)

She would be the first woman to head one of NYC’s largest art museums, joining (in the press release’s words) “a trio of female leaders of the Brooklyn Museum”—Elizabeth Sackler, chair, Stephanie Ingrassia, president; and Barbara Knowles Debs, vice chair of the board of trustees.

All of these attractive traits have caused the initial press reaction to her appointment to be giddily upbeat, as illustrated by this tweet from the NY TimesRoberta Smith, who (as astonishingly trumpeted by the Brooklyn Museum yesterday on its own website) was given an “exclusive” (Brooklyn’s word) on an important artworld announcement that, by rights, should have been all-media inclusive:

This was my contrarian reaction yesterday to the announcement:

Hearing Pasternak speak this morning on WNYC, New York’s public radio station, only reinforced my fears that she has a very limited grasp, based on limited experience, on what managing an encyclopedic museum entails.

What concerned me most was that we heard nothing from her about the deep, rich permanent collections and the curators who love them. It was all about contemporary art and community engagement—worthy but limited preoccupations for a museum whose foremost responsibility is to collect, preserve, display and elucidate its holdings (as well as temporarily borrowed works) from all areas of art and design, for the benefit of the public.

Pasternak spoke about the importance of “hear[ing] from our audiences” before setting her first priorities. Perhaps it was just an oversight, but she never mentioned the importance of an internal listening tour to understand the priorities and concerns of own her staff’s scholarly experts. We heard about “work[ing] on exhibitions that deal with important issues of our time through art” and “get[ting] art outside of the museum walls and into our neighborhoods”…not a word about Brooklyn’s rich historic collections.

The press release cites her expertise in dealing with Mayor’s Office of the City of New York. But what about the gauntlet of international institutions and state, national and foreign government entities through which major museum directors must deftly navigate?

Even Pasternak’s educational background falls short of the usual résumé of a major museum director. The press release tells us that she “holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Arts Administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and was a Master of Arts candidate [emphasis added] at Hunter College.”

There’s a reason why directors of this country’s top art museums generally have PhDs in art history: They need a deep grounding in art scholarship to talk the language of their curators in discussing proposed acquisitions and exhibitions in their diverse fields.

As for the challenges of fundraising for a much larger organization, Pasternak told WNYC that “$35 million [the 2014 operating budget of the Brooklyn Museum, but only one of many things for which it must raise money] is just a number. It’s intimidating in some ways, but I think people are excited to join this institution.”

Every new director has a learning curve. Pasternak will likely be starting way behind the curve. That said, mine is (so far) a minority view on this appointment: Anne has justifiably generated a lot of goodwill in the New York art community.

The right cautionary note was recently struck by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

In comments she made to Jennifer Smith of the Wall Street Journal about Brooklyn’s director search, before Pasternak’s appointment was announced, Conwill said this:

The challenge…for this new director is to be careful not to be trendy, to listen to your curators [emphasis added], and to not be guided by what is hip.

Success at the hip, spunky Creative Time doesn’t mean that Pasternak is ready for the Big Time. But perhaps if she’s a very quick study and if Arnold Lehman (who remains at the museum through Aug. 31) proves to be a masterful mentor, she’ll make me eat my words.

I hope she does.

an ArtsJournal blog